WHAT is it about the Pacific that lures scoundrels and drifters? Is it the natural beauty, the innate goodwilled trustiness of the people? Is it because there is nowhere left to run? I think about all the Bully Hayes and Black Tom Tiltons that have come and gone, taking advantage of neighbors and looting their way from one place to another in this serene landscape of ours. Add to your list of grifters the bandit named Soapy, who terrorized the town of Skagway, Alaska during the great gold rush of the Klondike.
Soapy was not his real name, he picked up the nickname because he was so slippery, always one step ahead of the law and two hustles ahead of the gullible public. Before moving north, he was run out of Colorado for conning people out of their money. One scheme involved selling bars of soap. Before a crowd of onlookers, he placed a 50- or 100-dollar bill inside some of the wrappers, then sold individual bars for twenty dollars. To the average person, the chance to win one hundred dollars while only risking twenty seemed a good bet. Of course, the people who got the soap with the money inside were actually Soapy’s buddies, planted in the crowd to add believability. When the townsfolk found out they had been swindled, Soapy and his gang would leave town and look for fools somewhere else.
In the late 1890s, gold was found in the Klondike region of Canada, just over the border from Alaska, and Soapy saw his next opportunity, not digging for gold, which was a lot of work, but in the chance to take money from the treasure seekers. Soapy and his gang moved to the small town of Skagway in the Alaskan panhandle, which had become the entry point for the gold rush.
They started small, opening a telegraph office. Travelers came in to send their families short messages about where they were and how they were getting along, and the office charged them for the service. The trouble was, they had no wires. The telegraph office was a fake. People wrote out their messages and pulled out their money, the telegraph man pounded away on the key as if transmitting a message, only it went nowhere. The telegraph was not hooked up to anything outside of town. Soapy collected a lot of money from unsuspecting souls until people talked to their relatives back home and found out no messages were getting through.
By then, Soapy moved on to his next swindle. He opened a saloon which was harmless enough, except that he watered down the whisky and overcharged for every service. But the real scam was the genuine bald eagle kept in a backroom. The bird is one of the largest and most majestic of the eagles and most people jump at the opportunity to see one in person, even today. To see a real bald eagle in Skagway was a temptation many could not resist. The trouble was, when an unsuspecting traveler entered the backroom, he was attacked by Soapy’s men who took their valuables. Soapy expressed outrage and vowed to bring justice, but the victims were never able to identify their attackers. The room was always dark and the criminals masked. Everyone knew Soapy was behind it but no one could prove it.
Having had enough if Soapy and his crimes, the people of Skagway warned him to leave town. A group of citizens armed themselves and marched on the saloon, but Soapy stood his ground. Finally, the issue was settled by gunfire, as a struggle resulted in Soapy shot through the heart and his killer shot in the groin. Both men died of their wounds and today both men are buried in the Skagway cemetery, Soapy’s grave marked by a small wood board and his killer’s topped with a large stone monument which reads, “He gave his life for the honor of Skagway.”
The Klondike gold rush ended and others erupted. People moved on and swindlers came and went. Soapy was largely forgotten, but when one thief goes another always seems to take his place. What is it about the Pacific that lures scoundrels and drifters?
BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.